ON the evening of March 21, Malaysian Prime Minister (PM) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim began his publicly unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia.
Early on, people in the know around Putrajaya weren’t too sure whether it was a private or official visit. The timing wasn’t right as it was the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.
Upon arriving in Jeddah in the morning of March 22, Anwar was greeted at the Jeddah International Airport by Jeddah’s governor, Prince Saud bin Abdullah. This was the first sign that Anwar’s visit to Saudi Arabia was a working visit rather than a private visit.
On March 22, the Foreign Ministry issued a media release stating that Anwar’s visit was the result of an invitation of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and PM Mohammed Salman Abdullah. It went further stating Anwar would have audiences with His Majesty King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud who is also Custodian of Two Holy Mosques as well as his counterpart Mohammed bin Salman.
The visit came on top of Anwar’s announcement in February – after Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir met with his counterpart Faisal Farhan in Riyadh – that Malaysia and Saudi Arabia have agreed to finalise talks on establishing a Saudi Arabian-Malaysian Coordination Council to take the bilateral relationship to the next level.
Consequently, there were some expectations of an historic announcement that might be made during Anwar’s visit.
It appeared, Zambry had set things up for his boss to have a major media ‘coup’ during his visit. The Malaysian media seemed to pick up interest whereby all Anwar’s meetings were reported on an hourly basis.
However, as the duration of the visit was coming to an end, there was still no meeting or even dinner (breaking of fast) with His Majesty King Salman and the Crown Prince/PM Mohammed bin Salman.
On Saturday afternoon (March 25), it became clear there would be no meeting. A report from Bernama said the scheduled meeting with His Majesty the King and Crown Prince/PM could not take place because of a change in their scheduling during the beginning of Ramadan.
Anwar told the media he was disappointed not to meet the Saudi leaders but had been requested to extend his stay two days for a re-scheduled meeting. However, Anwar stated he must return to Malaysia for a buka puasa event with the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong on top of a scheduled one-day visit to Cambodia to undertake.
Consequently, Anwar and his group performed prayers at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and were seen off at Abdulaziz International Airport by Prince Saud bin Khalid Al-Faisal, the deputy governor of Madinah.
What went wrong?
At this stage, there is no definitive explanation as to why Anwar didn’t meet with the Saudi leadership. We can only surmise the possibilities:
Diplomatic issues: Some speculate that the scrapping of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) by the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration under former PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed was the reason.
Back then, Anwar’s wife Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail had accompanying Dr Mahathir as the deputy prime minister (DPM). Another issue was the strain over 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) scandal.
Interestingly, former PM Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin received a very different treatment when he made a four-day official visit to Saudi Arabia from March 6-9, 2021. On this, Middle East expert and Saudi watcher James M. Dorsey discounted the practise of double standards. From his point of view, what happened – or didn’t happen – is a “mystery”.
What must be noted, however, is that Anwar had in his media conference yesterday (March 25) stressed that he will review the KSCIP decision which he claimed was a decision he didn’t agree with at that time.
Incompetence and disorganisation: Recall how Malaysian diplomats bungled former PM Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) visit to attend a trade expo last year where there were no top UAE officials to meet with him upon his arrival at the airport.
It’s very likely that similar blunders occurred before Anwar’s visit to Saudi Arabia. There is word that the arrangements were rushed as the trip was planned at relatively short notice. The late release of the media statement seems to indicate poor coordination.
Sabotage: The most sinister explanation was that this was sabotaged on purpose by some diplomats and/or civil servants who have loyalties towards Muhyiddin and the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. This is a common modus operandi within the civil service – a Machiavellian action to discredit someone not liked.
It doesn’t matter whether Anwar’s failure to meet with the Saudi leadership was because of a diplomatic issue, incompetence and disorganisation or sabotage. Anwar should have been advised NOT to make the visit if there were diplomatic risks involved.
There must be a probe into Wisma Putra to ascertain how decisions were arrived at where both the Malaysian PM and nation lost face in Saudi Arabia. Anwar’s disaster in Saudi is already generating political flak from the PN opposition – a prized capital to ‘whack’ the PH-Barisan Nasional (BN) coalitions in the run-up to the six state polls in mid-2023.
Mahathir Mohd Rais, PN’s Federal Territories’ information chief has praised Muhyiddin’s visit to Saudi Arabia, back in 2021 as he was “greeted at the airport by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and granted access to the Kaaba, a rare honour reserved for heads of state and eminent Muslim figures”.
Rais went on to say that “Anwar’s visit raises legitimate concerns about the PH-BN administration diplomatic capabilities and impact on the Malaysia-Saudi relationship”.
Foreign Minister Zamby must come up with the answers or do the next honourable thing. If this is the standard of care Malaysia’s diplomats and bureaucrats display, then there must be an immediate purge of those people who have discredited Malaysia. – March 26, 2023
Australia-born Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 40 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic and researcher. He was previously an associate professor at the Universiti Malaya Perlis.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.
Pic credits: Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Facebook